Eternal Masters – the pointless bestseller

Eternal Masters is coming out soon, and as the title of this entry says, I do not see its point.

Now, obviously there is a point to WotC putting the set out, since it will undoubtedly sell very well, and a bestseller does not need any additional justification from its publisher’s point of view. But why do people intend to buy so much of this set? What is their point? This is just what I don’t get. I feel forced to come back to the catchall explanation that people are just dumb – quite the easy copout for an analysis; but tried, and most importantly, true.

One especially perplexing fact I noticed is that many people do not even intend to draft the set, just crack open its boosters – that the contents of Eternal Masters were chosen with an eye on drafting it is actually the target of many bitter complaints I’ve seen! Now, not playing limited with the packs you purchase means that you miss out on most of their value. You essentially reduce a game product to a lottery lot this way. I will talk about this approach in a minute, but first let me briefly address Eternal Masters limited:

For one thing, considering the “RL” paper product, it is going to happen only very rarely. The set is being severely shortprinted in relation to expected demand on purpose, and the packs are severely overpriced in comparison to those from other sets with comparable limited play value. Retailers will be stockpiling and sandbagging Eternal Masters boxes, driving up booster prices and decreasing short-term supply even more. Even private end users will be tempted to keep their purchases unopened in the hopes of making profit with them later. This means that both sanctioned and private drafts will be far and few between. Of course, you could buy a box or two with the intent of organizing drafts privately, but unless the lottery aspect of opening those packs pays out, you will still vastly overpay for your draft experience.

Apart from that, Eternal Masters will actually not even constitute a great draft environment once its novelty wears off (which is, of course, less of a problem since such drafts will be unavailable again so fast). To summarize: The format will be very fast; the quality of your deck will depend a lot on your skill of opening many key uncommons for your archetype; and single games will often be decided by opening draws (since the format is fast) or by higher-rarity bombs. While many people do not mind such shortcomings as much as I do, this certainly doesn’t make for a play experience worth paying roughly four times the normal amount for a draft!

(Oh, and just for the sake of completeness, let me point out that sealed is even more expensive and generally less fun than draft, but especially less fun with Eternal Masters since this is a highly synergy-based format.)

The long and short of it: While drafting the set is, as always, the best way to get value from it, it is still heavily overpriced, and a rare opportunity many people will not even seek out.

But what about cracking those packs? Aren’t there a lot of heavily sought after cards in Eternal Masters? Well – actually, no! Or at least they are not as heavily sought after that buying these packs would be justified.

You see, the real chase cards of that set tend to be at least rare, and usually mythic rare (no big surprise here). And that is in a shortprinted set where boosters cost about four times as much as normal! How much value do you think you can realistically expect to open? Also, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that with any set in short supply, the best way to get value from a booster is to keep it sealed and sell it later. Yet again, for some reason, many people believe that Eternal Masters is a product where you can expect to open packs and sell their contents with a profit – and this is also true if people intend to keep those contents for themselves, because by definition, they could have gotten them cheaper on the secondary market.

No matter how you slice it, the contents of a set’s packs will never be worth more than the unopened packs. While this is of course true for every set, it’s much more noticeable when pack prices are so high – and also, the real value of packs lies in their gameplay when you use them for limited. I would argue that paying about 10€ for about three hours of gaming, while potentially getting back a significant portion of your entry via card values and winnings is not too bad a deal – compare it to attending a sports event, or going to a movie or to a club, and you’ll see that your spendings are well justified for the entertainment value you get. But this is obviously much less true if you are spending 40€!

You need to understand that playing limited with packs as you open them is the only way to extract entertainment value from them. Yes, of course you can put the cards you opened in casual or constructed decks or cubes and entertain yourself with playing them that way, but you do not need to crack packs for that. There is a secondary market for single cards, and it is always cheaper to buy the cards you need directly than trying to get them by opening boosters.

Thus, if you plan on opening Eternal Masters packs only because you want cards contained in that set, you are at best stupid – and at worst, you have a serious gambling problem if you enjoy the thrill of buying expensive lottery lots with terrible expected value!

But are there reasons for people who are not stupid to be happy about Eternal Masters? Well yes, there are, but some of them are doubtful, and none of them involve buying and cracking packs. Just in the way that WotC is happy about putting out a bestselling set, many retailers will be happy about their profit margin reselling it; and chances are, some private customers who are lucky and/or clever enough to get those packs at not too high a retail price will be able to make a moderate profit by reselling them (unopened) down the line, too.

Now, if reselling unopened product is the only way to profit from buying Eternal Masters boosters, there is still the question why players (in contrast to traders or speculators) celebrate the publishing of that set! Well, they of course expect certain cards in high demand to get less expensive when their supply is increased. Note, though, that you would still profit from this effect (if it comes to pass at all) the most by not buying any Eternal Masters product directly, but instead getting the cards you need from the secondary market!

That is a rather restrictive and cynical way to “enjoy” a new set, though, and it is based on relying on (many) other people to be dumb enough to buy it. It doesn’t seem like a great reason to celebrate Eternal Masters enthusiastically, either.

…oh, what is this I hear? The great thing about this set is that it makes eternal formats (in paper) more accessible? It’s right in the name Eternal Masters, right?

Wrong. Totally wrong! Whenever I see that point being brought up, I am reminded of the endless and pointless discussions I had on Zeromagic a couple years ago when I stated the obvious by saying that constructed Magic would get more expensive with the advent of mythic rares. (A thousand idiots cannot hear sense…) It was simple back then, and it is simple again now: The accessibility of a format depends mainly on the accessibility of its hardest to get staple cards. You know, those on the Reserved List, which Eternal Masters does not touch, and which no future product ever will. If highly sought after cards from the new set become less expensive (and that is still an if – rarity downshifts like on Elvish Vanguard aside – since there will not actually be that many additional copies in circulation, they will not be very cheap at all, and the hype generated by the set might well increase demand to the point where it cancels this additional supply out), this is still at best a drop in the bucket compared to what you need to spend on Reserved List cards.

By the way, any hopes for an eternal format without the Reserved List have just been officially dashed (again), but even if that came to pass, it would certainly not be what people wanted – the whole point of eternal formats is that you get to play with your old cards!

So – in which way could Eternal Masters possibly make legacy or even vintage more accessible? Would you call a major influx of budget players who try to compete with no-reserved-list decks against a field of “real” legacy decks an improvement? And this is already an unrealistic best-case scenario based on the assumptions that a) Eternal Masters will make at least assembling those decks noticeably cheaper, and b) many people will be content to compete with the enormous handicap of restricted card and deck selection!

Note also that any somehow competitive deck of that kind would per definition come to make up a large part of the metagame, incentivizing people to heavily metagame against it and thus making it worse again. If such a thing happens in a remotely healthy format, players will react by switching from this popular deck to a choice not affected by the metagame backlash – but this hypothesized no-reserved-list player group is by definition not able to react to a metagame change in that way. I don’t know about you, but if I am effectively restricted to a single deck choice which is increasingly getting hated on in a format, I will probably react by giving up on that format. (And once people actually do that, the metagame will stabilize and become healthy again! See, there is just no such thing as a healthy metagame which features a large amount of budget-restricted decks as a requirement.)

In my opinion, this best-case scenario is still quite a bad-case scenario, while not too likely in the first place. But let’s take a look at the alternative: Due to the Eternal Masters hype, actually more people might become attracted to eternal formats, and they might intend to enter them on equal footing! Well, obviously they need staples from the Reserved List for that, which means those become more expensive – and by that, I mean at a noticeably faster rate than they already do long-term! This would make eternal formats actually less accessible, because more players starting to invest in format staples will have two predictable effects:

1) It will lead to a larger fragmentation of these cards – meaning that fewer people will own the required number of copies, because more people will be in the process of building up their collection (which in most cases will never be completed). This will decrease the number of really competitive players further.

2) It will incentivize both retailers and private speculators to hoard cards from the reserved list, since their price is bound to go up for a while (an effect accelerating itself, obviously).

Now, of course, there will be a point where the ever decreasing accessibility of those formats will outweigh the hype, and the pendulum will swing back again – players will lose interest, people will start selling those expensive cards instead of collecting or hoarding them, and prices will go down again. But at no point in that cycle will an eternal format ever support more competitive players than it did before, because the total supply of reserved-list cards stays constant (actually, it decreases slowly since cards get destroyed or lost). I do not know what your definition of an “accessible” format is, but it should be based on either the total number of players it can support, or on its entry cost. None of these factors are influenced positively by Eternal Masters, and as I just explained, it is even likely that they will be influenced negatively for a while.

This has been getting long enough, so let me summarize:

Because the Reserved List is there to stay, vintage and legacy are doomed to die, and Eternal Masters doesn’t change this a bit.

Opening packs of Eternal Masters means that you are wasting money. This is even true if you factor in entertainment value, since those boosters are absurdly expensive, and it’s especially true if you’re interested in single cards, which you could by definition get cheaper from the secondary market.

Oh, and of course Eternal Masters does not contain a single new card, meaning it does absolutely nothing to enrich any constructed format.

In conclusion: From a player’s point of view, Eternal Masters is completely pointless! It only exists to sell itself.

And just because someone might note that Magic overall only exists to sell itself: Yes, of course, but packs from “normal” sets like Shadows over Innistrad provide both reasonable entertainment value for your spent money if drafted, and they enrich constructed formats since they contain new cards. Thus, they are not pointless.

Eternal Masters, though, is.

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4 Comments on “Eternal Masters – the pointless bestseller”

  1. I disagree.
    See, in my humble opinion you totally ignore 3 groups of buyers of Magic cards.

    First, there is the ever growing Commander crowd. These people care less about the Reserved list and more about old cards, that are more affordable. Moreover they care about old in foil, something that your average spike doesn’t think twice about.

    Second, there is the MTGO crowd (growing as well, btw). Due to the release of older sets in MTGO during a time with significantly less players many cards that are widely available in Paper became chase cards in MTGO, e.g. Daze and Invigorate.

    Last but not least there is one more large crowd ignored by you : the collectors. When they decide to collect MTG then they actually collect any product and they really care about the Reserved list as it significantly increases the collection value of magic overall. Collectors don’t mind the price of an item, but they strongly value its uniqueness.

    Frankly from WotC’s perspective it would already by worthwhile to make a product just for these groups alone. In fact in the past they did so, e.g. with Vintage Masters (only for MTGO), Commander Sets (at least nowadays mostly for Commander Players) and these Comic-Con Promos (mostly for Collectors).

    Hence from a product portfolio perspective EMA fits perfectly to close some gaps and to cater to specific target groups. Therefore your statement that EMA is pointless is untrue.

    • I don’t believe you disagree quite as much with me as you seem to think…

      For one thing, while I agree I could have expressed this more clearly, I was of course talking about Eternal Masters as a PAPER release – the MTGO release certainly makes a lot more sense! This should have been clear at the very least from the points I brought up, since obviously many of them simply do not apply to MTGO – there is no reserved list there, vintage and legacy are both accessible, buying boosters directly from the store means that customers will not experience price spikes caused by retailers, product availability by time instead of unit numbers means that there will also be no product shortage inflation by hoarding retailers or speculants, drafts will continuously be available during a fixed time span, and availability of certain cards is different on MTGO than in RL. For all those reasons, it should have gone without saying that I was never talking about Eternal Masters as an MTGO release!

      About the commander crowd: As long as you care for the play value of cards, my point still holds true that buying packs yourself is a dumb idea. Also, my doubts about really sought after cards actually getting noticeably cheaper are still valid.

      You are correct, though, that I did overlook collectors. While I WAS specifically and explicitly discussing the value of this set for players, I totally left collectors out of my consideration when I said that Eternal Masters made only sense for traders and speculants. My frame of mind is just too far removed from those of people who put value on blinging out their decks or collecting every set just because it’s there.

      But then again, it seems doubtful to me that this group is relevant in the bigger picture among the players who will buy this set. And once again, the point still holds true that buying single cards (or complete sets) off the secondary market makes more sense for them than buying packs. However, I agree that for them introducing premium versions of cards which didn’t have any before is somehow comparable (in a much smaller way, though) to enriching constructed environments with new cards; and that a new complete set to collect is somehow comparable to experiencing a new limited or constructed environment.

      So, yes, collectors may be yet another (albeit small) group who have legitimate reason to be happy about Eternal Masters existing – and because, as I understand it, the challenge of acquiring harder to get cards is somehow part of the fun for collectors, even the outrageous pricing of this set is not actually a disadvantage from this group’s point of view.

      However, how big do you think is this group of collectors really? Note that they are restricted to exactly the two kinds of interest you mention – acquiring premium versions of cards who didn’t have any before, and collecting the new set completely. Without those distinguishing features, all Eternal Masters cards are just newer and generally more commonplace versions of already existing cards, and especially collectors shouldn’t care much about those at all.

      By the way, it DID cross my mind that new versions of existing cards can be of some interest for niche audiences – for example, I am myself rather glad that I can now get copies with updated wordings of Skulking Ghost and Roots for my Limited Card Pool, as well as a Serendib Efreet that isn’t a confusing misprint. In a similar vein, I can see that some people would want to replace cards in their decks or cubes because of a preference for a certain artwork or flavor text. I didn’t mention that, though, because I believe that overall the demand created for Eternal Masters for such reasons is negligible.

      • In general we are in agreement on many points. However after watching the MTG Finance scene for several years I came to the conclusion not only that there are collectors within the Magic community, but also that it must be a bigger group than usually assumed.

        Many price movement can only be explained if we consider the collector’s demand as substantial. Current movements on Beta Cards, some prices for foils and most importantly some price differences on single cards between MTGO and Paper Magic that simply can not be explained merely by the card’s value in competitive play.

        There is no doubt that the most price spikes are caused by cards featuring prominently in Top 8 lists. However the long-term value of older cards is more and more driven by collectors. Speculation and buy-outs do happen as well, but speculation is way more profitable on Modern and Standard legal cards and again especially on MTGO, simply because the ease of unloading the assets is so much smaller. If somebody speculates on Reserved Lists cards though he will quickly notice that the daily trade in these cards is way to low to justify his/her time.

        The collector’s scene is somewhat unique to Magic. One reason is certainly that Magic is the oldest TCG. This means that at the beginning it was also marketed as something similar to Baseball cards (or similar collector’s item). In those days the idea that gaming pieces made out of cardboard (aka Magic cards) could have any intrinsic value was ridiculous. Therefore Magic piggybacked on the already existing tradition of collecting sports cards and therefore collectors must have been a significant number of the first buyers. Later after the introduction of the Reserved List this group became even bigger.

        Another aspect is that Magic can cater to very different sorts of collectors. There are the “casual” ones that want to collect all Angels or Demons. Then there are the “completionist” collectors who want to have a full set of each edition. Finally there are the .. “exotics’ collectors” who are interested in only the most unique items.
        Hence imho WotC is purposefully catering to very diverse groups of collectors and therefore this group should be significantly large.

        So in conclusion, given some price movement on cards, given the history of the game and given the actually attractiveness of Magic for collectors I think that the group is large and that WotC is including them as potential customers in their decision making regarding all new products.

  2. I think I would’ve gotten a box if it was possibly to get one at MSRP. Just so I can draft it with friends and we’d be able to focus on drafting decks instead trying regain value by picking the expensive cards (which I would probably feel compelled to if I join a 40+ Euro draft). Afterall we had fun with MM2 and I almost broke even with my box. But since the german market price seems to have settled around 285 for EMA, I’ll pass on sealed product and get some singles I need.

    I do enjoy cracking boosters and the thought of opening something valuable; gambling is fun! (And there’s a reason why it’s an addiction). But I’m to sensible to buy boosters just to crack except a single one here and there.

    So yeah, I agree there is not much point to EMA for me, except maybe putting the modern frame on a few cards for my cube (many cheap un/commons I wanted to be reprinted for that reason didn’t even show up…)

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